I haven’t written much lately.
I’ve been gathering myself.
After 30 years in greater LA, I’m preparing to move to Tucson, Arizona.
The decision has been a long time coming. Way back in 2009 or so, I sold or gave away most of my (even so, meager) belongings, left my apartment of 18 years, and set off on a cross-country pilgrimage during which I hoped to discern what I dimly felt was to be the next leg of my spiritual journey.
I did a 40-day silent retreat at a truly gruesome spot on the Gulf Coast of Texas. I spent a month with my dear friend Sr. Jeanne McNulty at the (former) Franciscan Appalachian Hermitage in Spencer, West Virginia. This was a blessed and special sanctuary, forever dear to my heart, where Sr. Jeanne lived in the holler, rented out cabins for twenty bucks a night, and maintained a straw bale chapel in which she had a special dispensation to have the Blessed Sacrament.
At the time I seriously thought I was perhaps being called to be a contemplative hermit.
But after wandering around some more, I finally realized I’m far too shallow for such a calling, high-tailed it back to LA, and in a way have been wandering ever since. There was a “nomad year” during which I lived in a series of sublets and spent a summer in Palm Springs (thus, Tucson won’t be that huge a shock) at the mid-century condo of another dear friend, who was off doing the Camino or some such worthy thing: Fr. Tom Hall.
After that I landed in the place in Pasadena where I’ve been installed since December, 2015 (I think: things do start to blur…). Which not to put too fine a point on it, is not so much an apartment as an ongoing construction site.
Noise in fact, to which I am probably extra sensitive, has been an ongoing theme during my whole time in LA. It may have taken me 30 years to realize it’s not that I’ve had bad luck, or chosen poorly: it’s that I live in a city of ten million people and no matter where you go, it’s noisy.
Maybe it’s just noisy everywhere now (in fact, silence is the subject of an upcoming column).
Whatever the case, I don’t entirely understand this kind of pilgrim call I feel to leave, to go to the desert. Is it to die?….
In many ways, COVID paved the way. I’ve barely seen most of my friends for a year so it’s almost as if I (or they) have left already. I do think as we age, if we’re lucky, letting go naturally becomes easier.
One main thing that’s been holding me is the garden I planted in our back yard four years ago and that at last is fully established. On the other hand, that it IS fully established perhaps means that it’s also time to let it go, pass it on. If there’s one thing I learned from having a garden, it’s that gardens “register”–that they somehow continue growing and bearing fruit–into eternity. So–mission accomplished.
Speaking of eternity, those thirty years passed in the blink of an eye. I was gazing out the window last night as the sun set and thought–It’s as if I only arrived from the East Coast yesterday. I’ve just been a wayfaring stranger, passing through. And now I’m passing on to somewhere else…
” A long night at an uncomfortable inn,” as St. Teresa of Avila described our sojourn on this earth.
At the same time, a line from the Psalms keeps running through my head: “One day within your courts are worth a thousand elsewhere.” I’ve spent a day in His court.
I spent my first few years here desperately seeking His court and then I found it and ever since, if there is one constant in LA, it has been trudging to Mass. Always, always, kneeling in some church: St. Basil’s in Koreatown, the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood, St. Francis of Assisi in Silver Lake, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Palm Springs, St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Andrew’s in Pasadena and fifty more: a noon Mass at Beverly Hill’s Church of the Good Shepherd squeezed in after a trip to the dentist, a vespers Mass at St. Augustine in Culver City after a visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a 7 pm at Holy Trinity in Atwater after a walk along the LA River.
I don’t mean of course that Christ is only to be “found” in church. As the late Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete observed: “[E]verything human that is interesting can lead me to Christ.”
I mean that when you feel as desperately out of step as I have all my life; if you are as big a sinner; as quick to take offense; as blind to your own faults; as hungry for beauty, meaning, truth, and spiritual companionship; as appalled by the suffering of the world and as cowed by your seeming powerlessness to alleviate it; and above all are broken, weak, prone to obsession, and frightened to the core, then even in your worst moments you have a deep, blind urge to give thanks that you haven’t (yet) either died a drunk in the gutter or killed yourself.
Christ’s death on the Cross made it possible for someone like me to be propped up, one day at a time, sufficiently to participate in life, to contribute in some small way, to feel occasional stabs of joy.
And to those who think attendance at Mass is the mark of a small, confined, rigid, parochial, lemming-like worldview, to me there is and could be nothing wider, deeper, higher than the sacrifice re-enacted on the altar. Nothing more sublime, nothing more mysterious, nothing more astonishing, nothing more counterintuitive, nothing that opens onto more infinite vistas. Nothing more unexpected, nothing more radical, nothing more of love. Nothing I deserve less– than to “stand in your presence and minister to you”–as the Eucharistic prayer runs.
So–thirty years of solitude, of inner silence, of exile.
Thirty years as well of walking LA’s streets, learning the names of the flowers, listening to the birds, criss-crossing from one end of the city, county, Archdiocese and state to the other: drinking it in, leaving bits of my own body and blood, as I visited museums, attended concerts, meandered up hiking trails, through public gardens, down grungy alleys: studying it, pondering it, being delighted by it, cursing it, being mystified by it, getting it all down on paper, and in the end, for what else is there, giving thanks to this city in which I became a follower of Christ, a writer, and a fuller human being.
In the end–I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
28 Replies to “WAYFARING STRANGER”
I am moved to tears as I read this … tears at the goodness of God in your life; tears at how he is leading you to the sainthood for which you long; and tears at knowing you desire the same for all of us — and that you help bring us there through your words, your prayers, and your love of Him. Can’t wait to see the next phase of your dying-to-self journey! Much love, my sister in Christ. – Fr Rich (Wilmington, Del.)
Heather, met you in Portsmouth Institute conference and ask now as you change address of the ( anywhere Mission} that you keep us in your word share. The courage in your decisions are as welcome as a garden invite.
Immediately hit print after reading your latest entry about moving onward and knew I wanted to reread your powerful words and share with others your insights, especially those of us who are broken by life and restored by God’s healing grace, especially in the Mass. We’re all waiting to hear about your new journey and all the challenges and triumphs you encounter as well as new gardens you will bring to life! God bless and keep you.
Your honesty and clarity shine here. Thank you for sharing your journey to this decision with such love for life and compassion for your self as you walk the path. I do hope you will continue to include us in your writing life. Reading your words is like an open door inviting me to live more fully.
Beautiful as always. I hope, also, that you will continue to include us in your ongoing journey. My life is so much richer for having your writing in it. Rest assured of my continued prayers.
I had to sit down when I read this. My first thought was to run to the car and drive to Pasadena, for I will miss you… but I’m comforted to know that Tucson awaits and the next chapter will be equally rich.
What a beautiful description of the Mass! We are There for it all every day if we choose. God is so good to us.
I have never been to Tucson. My second oldest sister had tb and went to Tuscon in the late 40s for the climate. My oldest sister went with her so Helen wouldn’t be alone.
I wish you every blessing, lots of good walks and the peace and silence of the desert.
Teresa Cooney Kleber
ps Your garden is awesome.
Wow! I have tears in my eyes…I want to say tons but don’t even know where to begin. God has blessed you (and us through you) in so many ways. Keep on your pilgrimage and keep writing. God bless your new adventure!
Oh, Heather I loved this, aren’t we all you? As they say, isn’t Christianity “One beggar telling another beggar where the bread is.” I just moved to NC and it has been such a good, weird, hard adjustment. Still, as long as I can get to Mass or even just to Church to sit and stare at the Blessed Sacrament I am home. The best and only home. You will be fine, just keep writing because somehow you always show me where the bread is.
Another beautifully written excerpt of your life. I hope you will continue to be published from your new home.
I am glad that I found you shortly after I read Shirt of Flame. You are a living saint. Finding you has been not only healing, but enriching. You have inspired me to write, I have yet to begin. I often have wanted to just reach out and hug you. You are a blessing. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. God walks with you everyday. Dios de bendiga.
NOOOOOOO!!! What about your Angelus columns? That’s the way I’ve fed my California homesickness. I am REALLY going to miss your long looks at things that are special and weird and beautiful in greater LA. Each one was a treasure. I truly feel bereft right now.
I suppose I have to die to self and remember that home is not this computer screen here, or LA there, but “standing in his presence.”
I know you will continue to feed me. You are on my list of those who have taught me and brought me along on the very long path to faith. I look forward to getting to know Tucson. LOVE!
Happy trails, Heather! I am so excited for you 🙂 Never leave us..
Heather- I too am moved to tears as I read your words. God bless you and keep you in the days ahead as your journey unfolds. I am blessed beyond measure to have you and your writings in my orbit. Thank you so much for sharing your open heart and love of Christ which strengthens me.
Oh bless you and thank you all so much for these comments, each of which I TREASURE, and for the good wishes.
I should have said: the Angelus column will continue! I’m sure I’ll still be spending time in LA, which is a hop, skip and a jump away (500 miles) either by plane or even car. And believe it or not, there is internet, wifi and cell service in Arizona, too, which means that in one way I am not going ANYWHERE.
I could have written this post so many ways, and probably will in the coming days and weeks. The friends, the serendipitous crossing of paths, the zillions of adventures, arts and culture forays, road trips, miracles, debacles of these past decades…the way I’ve been formed by LA…the road ahead, which I can’t quite see, and can we ever?
So apt that the day-by-day letting go, planning, packing, praying, has taken place during Lent. I’m headed out next Sunday to spend a month (if need be) in Tucson to look for a house to rent, so will be in my new home city for Holy Week…
I will bring you all with me. Let’s hold one another especially in prayer during these days of Christ’s Passion. It means the world to me to know that we are all accompanying one another. As does the knowledge that my writing, which of course will also continue, has meant something to some of you.
I (we – Maxine too) only wish it was back to the Palm Springs area. Let the adventure continue! Your amazing story has been inspiring.
At least this way you, Maxine and I will all be in the desert, Jeff! Love and prayers to you both, always–and as always, thank you.
Sounds like my life in so many ways as i’m sure it does for many. Please continue to share your inspiring spiritual journey with us all.
Will do, Ron–I’m moving, but my laptop will go with me…hope all is well out there in Maine!
Wow, Heather, I didn’t see this coming. I thought you were going to Ireland. Godspeed, and welcome to Arizona!
Ireland is on the itinerary, too, Michael, not to worry. And think of the new desert flora!
You will be closer to Mission San Xavier del Bac.
Right, the White Dove of the Desert! Have been several times…
Right, the White Dove of the Desert! Have been several times…lovely.
May God bless you in your new home. We have never met but I’ll miss you. I was always glad to know you lived in LA, not too far away. You once wrote about Descanso Gardens and when I had an opportunity to go there it was so beautiful. I’m sorry you’ll be leaving but I know you will keep writing – it’s God’s gift to you and to your readers.
And I’ll still be writing about and I’m sure visiting my beloved LA! So glad you discovered Descanso. Thank you, Susan!
Dear Heather…This is the first time I have ever written on anyone’s blog. Partially because I’m technologically-challenged, but mainly, I’ve never been this moved. I’ve been reading your commentaries in the Magnificat for a long time and just recently started getting your books on Amazon. There are no words to express the impact your writing is having on me. We are the same age, sober as long & although I am a cradle Catholic, my active addiction took me far away for a long time and my return came slowly in my recovery. Maybe 7 yrs in when a fervent prayer of surrender “take me where the fullness of You lies” brought me back to the Catholic Church. So, I’m buying and reading everything you wrote & now I discovered your blog. Just today, I read Poor Baby. Thank you. Guess I’ll be looking into Rachel’s Vineyard.
I’ll keep you in my prayers as your journey continues.
Wish I could help you move. Nanci N.
Nanci N! You helped make my day! Nothing makes me happier than a new reader with whom my work, for whatever reason, “clicks.” Well there are lots of books so you won’t run out of material for a while–Poor Baby, though as you know only a 10,000 word essay, it took me a year to write…or in another way, more like 20 years…yes, Rachel’s Vineyard was a help. I so appreciate your prayers for this new leg of the journey and will hold you in mine. Blessed Holy Week and again, thanks for taking the time to write.